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Muslim backpack program expands in US, abroad.

Summary: WASHINGTON: A Chicago-area Muslim charitable organization is partnering with police departments and social welfare groups to ensure that needy children have what many others take for granted: School supplies.

By M. SCOTT BORTOT

It all started when Zakat Foundation (http://www.zakat.org/)

Executive Director Khalil Demir decided to help his fellow citizens on

Chicago's South Side, regardless of their religion.

"When school starts and many kids don't have a

backpack, they feel terrible," Demir said.

For the eighth consecutive year, the Illinois-based Zakat

Foundation is distributing backpacks laden with notebooks, pens and pencils,

rulers and calculators to children in poor neighborhoods.

Sheryl Bilal, the Zakat Foundation's social services

director, said the backpack program began in 2002 under the slogan "To

Kids, from Kids, with Love."

Youth volunteers often supply and fill the backpacks.

"It is a privilege for Zakat Foundation to be able

to provide school supplies and backpacks to so many children," Bilal said.

"Their excitement at having new things for school is evident in their

smiling faces."

Most recently, the Zakat Foundation teamed up with the

police department in Markham, Illinois, south of Chicago. Officers picked up

about 150 supply-filled backpacks from Zakat for distribution in their

community.

Terry Durkin, a civilian resource officer at the City of

Markham Police Department, said she tapped into the Zakat Foundation's help

when she started a backpack program in her city's public schools six years ago.

"When I see the kids every day who don't have

pencils and crayons and book bags, that's when I decided to get a book bag

program together," Durkin said.

This year's Zakat program aims to hand out 600 backpacks

in the Chicago area.

In addition to the Markham Police Department, Zakat

contributed backpacks to a program with the Juvenile Probation and Court

Services Department of Cook County, which serves the Chicago area.

Other Muslim organizations in Chicago join Zakat in

distributing backpacks. Backpack distributions are planned for the Light of

Islam Mosque, Masjid Dawah and social services group Project Downtown: Chicago.

Michael Swies, lead organizer for Project Downtown:

Chicago, said his group first partnered with Zakat in 2008 to distribute school

supplies in some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. At Project Downtown:

Chicago, volunteers hand out the backpacks to children and parents from Islamic

learning center Masjid Dawah.

"A lot of [the parents] are having a hard time

figuring about where they are putting their money," Swies said. "By

them having school supplies provided, it makes it easier for them to put their

money toward food and other basic needs."

Although the backpacks are distributed from a mosque,

Swies said most families receiving them are not Muslim. Project Downtown:

Chicago plans to distribute Zakat Foundation backpacks on the weekend of Sept.

4.

Early success in the backpack program prompted Zakat to

take it overseas in 2003.

"Each year we find a different country that we are

going to donate to and we send the bags there," Bilal said. "We wait

until we have quite a number of bags for our shipping container and then we

send that along with other things like medical supplies and computers and

clothes."

Zakat's international and local backpack programs are

identical except at the preparation phase.

For the local program, Zakat purchases backpacks and

supplies and packs them before distribution. With the international program,

Zakat has individual donors provide and fill backpacks so the donors and their

children will feel a personal connection to the effort.

"We also encourage them if they want to have pen

pals overseas, that they could put a little note in there," Bilal said.

"They would fill the backpacks with whatever supplies they wanted to send

to the children and then have them delivered to our offices."

This year, the Zakat Foundation is sending backpacks to children

in Pakistan along with supplies associated with flood relief.

Zakat Foundation officials said the local and

international backpack programs continue to expand as families around the world

struggle to make ends meet.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Sep 2, 2010
Words:680
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